Moving Home

DSC_0382Well, long time, no see!  I hope you are all well.  I have to say that I have had an interesting summer and we all know what that means, don’t we!

However, one good thing that has come about is that my eyes have stabilised and I have become used to dealing with the resulting changes.  I am reading more, and intend to be writing more….

….but not here.

There have been other changes in my life, most particularly my involvement with a local art gallery who at peril, I would have thought, to their own reputation, asked me to take on the role of guide.  My first question on being approached was, “Do you not have to know something about art?”  I tell you now, what I knew could have been written large on the back of the proverbial stamp.  It appeared that what they wanted me for was not my non-existent artistic proficiency, but rather my ability to set the works in context.  Apparently, no one had pointed out to them before that Shakespeare and Caravaggio had been active over almost exactly the same twenty year period.  (That still blows my mind!)  So, for the past year, that is what I have been doing, bouncing round the gallery and frightening the visitors by regaling them with stories about what was going on in the world when the works of art they are viewing were first painted.  And, I like making those connections and as a result I find that I no longer want to think in fragments; I want to join the dots.

So please come and join me at Café Society where there will still be endless book talk but also, I hope, discussion of how all the arts and history and philosophy and anything else that seems to be even remotely relevant, inter-relate.  It’s time I picked up the threads.

 

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I Know What I Think…..

imagesSo, we all know the saying ‘I know what I think when I hear what I say’, do we?  Well, for me it seems that I know what I think when I see what I write and that without writing I stop thinking altogether.  Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but, if I’m honest, not so much.  Over these past months I have still been experiencing things, books, theatre, films and increasingly, in the time we’ve been apart, works of art, but unless I’m also writing about them those experiences are proving to be far less rich.   The eyesight problems that forced me away from here have not got any better and so I can’t ptretend that I am going to be able to come back to a full blogging life and my online friends are going to have to excuse me if I don’t comment on their posts as often as might seem companionable but I am going to have to find a way of writing again even if it is only a couple of times a month.

As a starting place and because I know a lot of you find lists as fascinating as I do, here are the possible selections for this year’s summer school.  You remember the summer school?  My attempt to get people reading and talking about books without having to pay a four figure sum for the privilege. Over a week in August we meet three time to discuss a set of books related thematically and at this time of year those involved get to choose what those books should be.  If you had to choose just one set of three from these which would it be?

Walking The Royal Mile
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie ~ Muriel Spark
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox ~ Maggie O’Farrell
One Good Turn ~ Kate Atkinson

Vienna Nights
Waiting for Sunrise ~ William Boyd
The Third Man ~ Graham Greene
Mortal Mischief ~ Frank Tallis

Paying the Price
A Whispered Name ~ William Brodrick
The Reckoning ~ Rennie Airth
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky ~ Simon Mawer

Raiding the Bookshelves
The Bookshop ~ Penelope Fitzgerald
The Secret of Lost Things ~ Sheridan Hay
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore ~ Robin Sloan

Twinned
The Thirteenth Tale ~ Diane Setterfield
A Fearful Symmetry ~ Audrey Niffenegger
Sisterland ~ Curtis Sittenfeld

After You Die ~ Eva Dolan

cover77357-mediumTwo years ago I reviewed Long Way Home, Eva Dolan’s first novel featuring DI Zigic and DS Ferreira of the Peterborough Hate Crime Department, and heaped on it the praise I felt it so justly deserved.  The only concern that I voiced was whether or not it would be possible to ring the changes sufficiently given that the motive behind the crimes that they encountered was likely to be similar in each case. I need not have worried. Long Way Home tackled the exploitation of immigrant labour. Since then we have had Tell No Tales, which dealt with issues to do with right wing extremism and now, at least initially, it seems that behind the murder currently under investigation may lie prejudice against those who are disabled.  It is, to say the least, disturbing to realise just how wide the brief is of those who investigate Hate Crimes.

After You Die occurs some months after the conclusion to the enquiry detailed in Tell No Tales and Mel Ferreira is now back at work after the horrific injuries she suffered in the course of that investigation.  Inevitably matters have been let slip while she has been recovering and so when the first news comes in of the death of Dawn Prentice and her disabled daughter, Holly, Mel’s immediate response is to question whether or not she is at fault.  The previous summer Dawn had made a number of complaints about harassment she and Holly were suffering as a result of Holly’s recent paralysis.  Although they were followed up at the time, Ferreira now wonders if she shouldn’t have pursued the issue further, even though the complaints tailed off.  But, as the investigation progresses, it begins to look as though the focus of the attack has in fact been Dawn and that whoever killed her assumed that Holly would be found while she was still alive.  Attention shifts to those who might have wished the woman harm, including her ex-husband and a number of men she has met through internet dating sites.

There is also, however, the question of why eleven year old Nathan, the foster child of Dawn’s friend Julia, has suddenly taken off into the blue.  He was a frequent visitor at the house.  Has he seen something that has scared him?  Why is no one willing to talk about his background?  Is it possible that Nathan himself committed the crime?  DI Zigic finds himself blocked at every turn as he tries to discover what it is about the youngster’s history that makes those who should be supporting the investigation refuse to co-operate.

There are several issues currently in the public eye raised in the course of this novel.  There have been a number of cases in the news recently where the police have not followed up on reports of harassment and as a result the complainants have been terribly injured or even killed.  The question of the evil that is internet trolling is also explored.  Ultimately, however, it seems to me that what this book is really concerned with is the vulnerability of children, both physically and psychologically, and the terrible damage that can be done to them, deliberately or otherwise, by those adults who are careless of their well-being.  Children proliferate in this story.  There are Zigic’s two boys as well as his unborn daughter.  In addition to Nathan, Julia fosters a second child, Caitlin, and is pregnant herself.  Then there is, of course, Holly, and also Benjamin, the son of the woman her father is now living with.  Not all of these children are innocents, but for the most part those who prove to be capable of acts of violence have been shaped by the adults they have encountered earlier in their lives.  Our children become the people that we help them grow into and if the significant adults in their lives (including those in authority who should take lasting care of them) abuse them either physically or through neglect, we have to recognise that there will be consequences.

This is a very accomplished novel.  I knew when I first encountered Eva Dolan that I would want to read whatever she wrote next and subsequent books have only reinforced that opinion.  Her characterisation has always been strong.  What is noticeably developing is her ability to offer a plot with clear lines of development and a strong underlying theme.  I very much look forward to the next novel in the series.

(With thanks to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, Harvill Secker who made this available for review.)

My Name Is Lucy Barton ~ Elizabeth Strout

41yYCG48DSL__SX336_BO1204203200_-203x300Very very rarely you come across a book that is so close to perfection that writing about it yourself seems like an act of sacrilege.  Having just finished Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, all I want to do is hide myself away and think about the enormity of her achievement in a book that runs to only two hundred pages and which my e-reader tells me can be read in just over an hour.  But, if I do that then how can I spread the word about a work that I want everyone to read?  So, almost reluctantly, I will try to give you some idea of the immense depth of human emotion that Strout is exploring in this small miracle of a novel, without trespassing too much on the work itself.

Lucy Barton is a writer and in this book, her book, she reflects on an incident many years earlier when she was unexpectedly hospitalised for nine weeks. During this time her mother, whom she has not seen for many years, visits her for five days.  The relationship between them is taut with unexpressed, unrecognised emotions, most particularly with a love to which neither of them can give voice.  Here, then is one of the subjects that Strout offers for our consideration, the relationship between mother and daughter.  What, she asks, is the extent of a mother’s responsibilities towards her daughter?  More pertinently, perhaps, to what extent is a daughter’s sense of identity shaped by her mother.  For the other important question that the author raises in the book is that of where our sense of identity comes from.  How do we develop a sense of self, a sense of our place in the world?

Strout explores many possible answers to this, answers which range from external signifiers:

the clothes I wore were me

through measuring ourselves against others:

I had never seen children going into Jeremy’s apartment.  Only a man or two, or sometimes a woman.  The apartment was clean and spare: A stalk of purple iris was in a glass vase against a white wall, and there was art on the walls that made me understand how far apart he and I were

to the ways in which others treat us.

And this is yet another area of concern for Strout: the way in which someone can be diminished in their own eyes by the disdain of another human being.

I was standing one day on the front stoop, and as he came out of the building I said, “Jeremy, sometimes when I stand here, I can’t believe I’m really in New York City. I stand here and think, Whoever would have guessed?  Me! I’m living in the City of New York!”

And a look went across his face – so fast, so involuntary – that was a look of real distaste.  I had not yet learned the depth of disgust city people feel for the truly provincial.

Strout develops this particular question further, not only considering the ways in which one person might feel superior to another but also the perhaps more interesting question of why such a feeling of superiority is so important to us.

I have said before.  It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people.  It happens all the time.  Whatever we call it, I think it is the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

And as Lucy knows, the effects of such a put down can be out of all proportion to the words spoken: a tiny remark and the soul deflates.  

Lucy has fought hard to establish and maintain her own identity.  What becomes apparent as we read about her life is how difficult this can be and what terrible costs can be exacted as a result.

Like many readers, I first came across Elizabeth Strout’s work when Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer Prize.  What struck me then about her writing and what is even more apparent in this latest work is her ability to say more that is true about character and emotion in half a dozen lines than most writers manage in a similar number of chapters.  I loved Olive Kitteridge, as I have loved her other three novels, but for me My Name is Lucy Barton outstrips all of them.  I will not read a better book this year.

Sunday Round-Up

e2191505c671674fab7f119e0ae8ab3fWell, I have to say that I am feeling rather better about myself this weekend than last having had a successful first week on my Dickens course and not too bad a week in the book world otherwise either.

Dickens

The Dickens course got off to a flying start with a week looking at representations of the city in literature of the period up to the early nineteenth century.  I got myself worked up into a lather over the constant depiction of the city as a place of sin, mainly because I wanted to know who decided what constituted a sin and I’m afraid I rather lowered the tone of the discussion board by quoting the opening lines of Michael Hurd’s canata for children Jonah Man Jazz.  Do you know it?  The opening goes:

Nineveh city was a city of sin,

The jazzing and the jiving made a terrible din,

Beat groups playing rock and roll,

And the Lord when he heard it said, “Bless my soul”.

I wanted to know whether or not it would have been a different matter if they had been singing Bach cantatas.  It seems to me that in a lot of the cases that were coming up for discussion the question wasn’t one of sin but of the maintenance of the current power balance: People A saying to People B, “Your behaviour threatens our hold on power, therefore your behaviour is sinful. Yippee!  That means we can legitimately wipe you out”.

We haven’t got far enough for me to argue the specific case yet, but I don’t think Dickens thought of the city as sinful per se.  Rather it was the institutions that were embedded in it that concerned him and that is certainly an issue to do with power.

Reading

I haven’t got through quite as much reading as I’d hoped, but at least it is underway.  I’m halfway through Oliver Twist and find myself thinking yet again about the disservice that adaptations can do to a book.  OK, I love the musical, Oliver,  but really it doesn’t do much more than pay lip service to the original.  I think there was a rather more recent television dramatisation.  I must try and get hold of a copy of that.  The prescribed editions of Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend arrived on Friday.  They weigh in at around 800 pages apiece!  I am going to have to put some serious reading time to one side.  The required edition of Oliver Twist is out of print. Naughty!!!

Otherwise, I have finished Sarah Hall’s latest novel Wolf Border,  which I thought was a very good read but didn’t actually deserve quite the level of praise I’ve heard for it.  Certainly, I don’t understand why there were calls for it to be on the Booker list.  Nevertheless, I shall go back and read her earlier work and I’ve added her to my list of authors to explore when I want something that isn’t going to be particularly taxing.

Having taken that back to the library my late evening reading has been the most recent Rennie Airth crime novel, The Reckoning.  I wonder if you’ve come across Airth.  He publishes only infrequently, but I think this series, centred around John Madden, once of the Metropolitan Police and now a farmer who still gets caught up in police affairs, is excellent and that Airth certainly deserves to be better known.   The earlier novels are set in the interwar period and during WWII, but this one takes us just beyond, into 1947. Compared with most police procedurals they are quite books, but full of psychological insight.  If you like Laura Wilson’s Stratton series then you will enjoy these.

Prologues and Epilogues

Completely coincidentally, given what I posted about on Wednesday,  I was at a seminar session this week led by Tiffany Stern concerning the beginnings and endings of Early Modern plays.  She was asking which items should be included when she prepares a new edition of a play.  Prologues and epilogues yes, but what about things like trumpet calls?  And which dances are part of the end of the play and which are a completely separate entity?  It is a difficult question.  I can explain what is happening linguistically, but knowing that it’s a question of what is a separate particle and what is part of a shared wave doesn’t help the desperate editor.  She did, however, offer another example of an epilogue appearing at the beginning of a play, although in this instance it never pretends to be anything other than the epilogue.  In the printed edition of John Mason’s play The Turke, the epilogue is on the left hand side of the page as the frontispiece is on the right.  Just to make sure that the reader knows that this isn’t a case of the printer not knowing what an epilogue is the hard pressed workman has included the note,

This epilogue should have been printed at the end of the book but there was no spare place for it.

Apparently, Mason got it to the publisher so late that all the other pages had already been set and the only possible place to put it was on what is normally a blank page right at the very front.

These writers!  You can’t rely on them for anything!

Summer School August 2015

DSC_0803As some of you know, every year I run a Summer School for a group of friends who, like me, can’t afford to attend any of the more formal literary gatherings that take place during the summer months. About this time of year I offer them five sets of books, each set being linked by a different theme, and ask them to choose the one they would most like to spend a week discussing. There are three books in each set so when the Summer School comes round we meet three times during the week, each meeting being hosted by a different member of the group and the discussion being led by a different participant. That way there is no real burden of preparation, other than reading the books, on anyone and the only cost that we incur is 50p a day that we contribute for tea and biscuits. It works extremely well. This will be the sixth year we’ve run it.

The forms for book selection will go out next week and this year participants will be asked to choose from amongst the following:

Musical Interlude

The Travelling Hornplayer ~ Barbara Trapido
Bel Canto ~ Ann Patchett
An Equal Music ~ Vikram Seth

The Perfect Spy

Sweet Tooth ~ Ian McEwan
Spies ~ Michael Frayn
Restless ~ William Boyd

Brave New Worlds

Brave New World~ Aldous Huxley
The Sparrow ~ Mary Doria Russell
Station Eleven ~ Emily St John Mandel

Resurrecting the Past

Remarkable Creatures ~ Tracy Chevalier
A Month in the Country ~ J L Carr
The Dig ~ John Preston

Walking The Royal Mile

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie ~ Muriel Spark
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox ~ Maggie O’Farrell
One Good Turn ~ Kate Atkinson

I’m always glad that I don’t get a vote as to which of the groups we’re going to read because of course I never offer books that I don’t want to spend my summer with and I would be very hard put to choose between these sets. However, I’m sure you’ve got thoughts as to which would top your list if you were joining us and I would love to hear what those are. It would be fascinating to see if your overall choice matches up to those who will actually be coming to the Summer School.